How a Tycoon Linked to Chinese Intelligence Became a Darling of Trump Republicans

Eventually, Guo ended up in New York, where he submitted his application for the penthouse in Sherry-Netherland. It became increasingly clear that he might never return to China. He had new terrain to master, and so he began playing a game he knew: intelligence. Around the world, the FBI maintains thousands of formal and informal sources, from government bureaucrats to shoeshine boys monitoring pedestrian traffic on a street corner. Some have bourgeois motives, like a grandmother on a porch quietly noting the make and model of a drug dealer’s car. But in most cases, the relationships are transactional. The source wants money or protection from prosecution; The handler, as a former agent told me, is trying to “get as much use out of that person” as possible.

In New York, Guo spoke to the FBI about the financial and personal lives of Chinese leaders, according to two sources familiar with the arrangement. “He knew who had girlfriends, who had boyfriends,” recalled a former FBI official. More importantly, Guo knew which party families benefited from which companies: “Just going to Miles and asking him these questions will save you three or four months of analysis work.” In one case, the official said, Guo had information on Xi Jinping’s daughter deployed while attending college in the US

The CIA was less impressed; Analysts concluded that Guo cannot be trusted to keep secrets. But the FBI stayed in touch. “If you ask ten different FBI and CIA people about Miles, you’re going to get seven different answers,” the former FBI official said. “It’s not always perfect. But no source is.” The officer added, “He knows he needs us to protect him. So he will always give just enough.” Guo also sought other forms of protection and tried to hire people with ties to the local power structure. In New York, he invited Jeh Johnson, who headed the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama, to his apartment in Sherry-Netherland. Johnson had left the government and was working as a lawyer for a luxury firm, and Guo wanted to hire him. During their meeting, Johnson politely replied and said to Guo, “I feel like you are someone I would like to help.” However, after researching more about Guo, Johnson declined to hire him.

In China, Guo had shown an unshakable instinct to ally with politicians who could help him. In the US, he seemed quick to identify who his most likely benefactors were. Since Xi Jinping became party secretary in 2012, he has restored party control, rolled back reforms and expanded China’s quest for power abroad. In Washington, a rare consensus grew among Republicans and Democrats that China’s quest for cooperation and openness has failed. But both sides disagree on what to do about it. Democrats tend to oppose the Xi government on a range of issues — China’s mass detention of Muslims, its pressure on Taiwan, its military activities in the South China Sea — but they still seek cooperation on climate change, health and arms proliferation . Republicans have made aggression toward China a measure of conservative credibility and are closer to the Communist Party’s declaration.

In January 2017, shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Guo activated his Twitter account and participated in the first of a series of interviews with overseas Chinese media. He accused some of China’s top leaders of corruption. He focused on Wang Qishan, the party’s anti-corruption chief, who claimed his relatives were hidden shareholders in HNA, Hainan Airlines’ profitable parent company, and that they owned up to $10 million worth of American real estate. Guo posted personal information online, including passports and flight records. (HNA denied the claims and sued Guo for defamation.)

He began live streaming from Lady May’s penthouse and deck and made other salacious, often unproven, allegations. His social media accounts attracted hundreds of thousands of followers, mostly Chinese expatriates – many of whom were eagerly supporting Trump for his criticism of China. Guo explained it at the beginning of a “whistleblower movement” and praised his own courage: “Guo Wengui comes from the grassroots, was born a farmer and is not afraid of death.”

Guo’s revelations hit China like a bomb. They arrived in the run-up to a major communist conclave, the 19th Congress, that would determine the top leadership for the next five years. The allegations were widely perceived as sabotage orchestrated by Xi’s enemies, or perhaps meddling Americans, to disrupt the coronation.

The party quickly hit back; She called on Interpol, the global police organization, to issue a “red notice” calling for Guo’s extradition. A video confession of his former patron, spy master Ma Jian, was uploaded to YouTube. With a bedraggled face and reading carefully, Ma said he accepted about sixty million yuan in bribes from Guo and repeatedly intervened to help his businesses. (Guo has denied bribing Ma.)

Online, Chinese censors tried to block any trace of Guo’s allegations, but their efforts were apparently not strict enough: ordinary netizens bypassed the firewall in large numbers. Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at UC Berkeley, studied web search trends in mainland China and found a pattern of sharp spikes on days when Guo was broadcasting. Xiao called it the “Guo Wengui Effect.”

The actual impact on Chinese politics was less clear. Although Wang, the target of the attacks, remained in power, one of his key associates was later imprisoned. HNA went bankrupt and senior executives were arrested by police. In 2018, the company’s co-chairman fell off a wall while posing for a photo in France. The police ruled out someone else’s fault, but Guo became a keen conspirator in his new role as a media personality. He called a press conference in New York and suggested that the executive had been killed because he “knew too much.”

One day in May 2017, a team of four officers from the Chinese security services – Guo’s former allies – showed up in Sherry-Netherland. The lobby is an ornate space, with hand-woven French rugs, marble mosaics, and a ceiling painted with cherubs inspired by Vatican frescoes. The officers did not linger; They went to the penthouse where Guo was waiting for them.

Guo and the security guards talked for hours on the gold-colored furniture in his solarium. The government made a bold move to get him back. He later released snippets of a recording in which they discussed a deal: return to China and they would leave his family alone and release his fortune. The officials, Guo said afterwards, brought his wife and daughter from Beijing; allowing his family to leave was a gesture of goodwill. Guo didn’t trust them. “Unless I get Secretary Xi’s approval, I will not return,” he said.

The visit caught the attention of Guo’s new contacts at the FBI. Later that day, the Chinese team was en route to Washington at Penn Station when FBI agents stopped them. The FBI ordered Chinese officials to leave the country and stay away from Guo. Two days later, however, they returned to his home, and debate erupted within the US government as to whether the provocation was serious enough for the FBI to arrest the officers. A national security official involved in the discussions recalled, “In my view, we had to punish them.”

When the Chinese team left for JFK Airport for an afternoon flight to Beijing, the FBI dispatched agents to intercept them. The US Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn was preparing charges of visa fraud and racketeering. But the State Department raised concerns: the Chinese officers could enjoy diplomatic immunity, and their arrest could expose Americans to retaliation in China. A compromise was reached under which the Presidium could show a limited show of force. Agents confiscated the Chinese delegation’s phones just before takeoff. (In retaliation, the Chinese later confiscated a notebook from a US diplomat as she boarded a plane leaving the country, according to the national security official.)

After Guo failed to return home, the Chinese authorities attempted to expel him from the United States. They contacted Steve Wynn, who was then the finance chairman of the Republican National Committee. Wynn, a hotelier, has been struggling with recent restrictions on his Macau casino operations. In June 2017, according to federal court files, he spoke by phone to Sun Lijun, the vice minister of public security, who asked for help to bring Guo back to China. Wynn agreed to raise the issue with President Trump.

At a dinner in Washington in late June, Wynn made the request and presented Trump’s secretary with a package containing the Interpol memo, press reports and copies of Guo’s passport. He then heard from Elliott Broidy, a venture capitalist and vice president of finance for the Republican National Committee, who was in touch with Sun Lijun. Broidy wrote that Sun was “extremely pleased and said that President Xi Jinping appreciates it [the] Help.” Wynn wrote to another person involved in the communication, “I remain grateful for the privilege of being a part of the Macau and PRC business community.”

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